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June 10, 2011

Toronto High School Student Discovers Drug for Cystic Fibrosis

Marshall Zhang, an 11th grader from Toronto, Canada, used a supercomputer to discover a potential cure for the disease cystic fibrosis. He showed his results at 2011 Sanofi-Aventis BioTalent Challenge and won the contest.

Marshall took a unique approach to solving the problem of drug interaction by using Canada's SCINET supercomputing network. Working with his mentor, Dr. Christine Bear of Hospital for Sick Children's Research Institute, Marshall used computer models to investigate how current drugs were interacting with cystic fibrosis. He was able to compute what was happening all the way down to the molecules.

First he determined how the drugs were acting with the mutant, or diseased, protein. Then he was able to verify his discovery using living cells in a real experiment. He found that two of the drugs worked on different parts of the protein, so they could be more effective if they were used together. When treated in a culture with the two drugs, the diseased cells began to function like normal cells.

Cystic Fibrosis, often called CF for short, is a common and deadly disease. There is currently no cure, but some of the newer drugs are showing progress. Although Marshall's discovery has not been proven or tested in humans, it certainly shows some progress and gives many people reason to hope that a cure will be found soon.

Marshall said that "The thrill of knowing that I was on the forefront of current knowledge was absolutely the best thing about my experience in the sanofi-aventis Biotalent Challenge…… Getting a taste of real research has definitely driven me towards a pursuing science in the future."

Marshall will be competing against Australian and United States teams in Washington, DC in June at the International BioGENEius Challenge. We wish him all the luck and hope that he can continue to make great discoveries.

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